Rogue view: Some Africans have their bad democracy, good coups, people’s dictators

Saturday October 28 2023

A cartoon illustration. PHOTO | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Ah, the vexing question of democracy in Africa. It won’t go away. With the madness in Sudan, and the coups in West Africa/Sahel and Central Africa, three weeks ago, The Economist explored the matter in “Why Africans are losing faith in democracy”.

Early in the week, an opinion piece on the Al Jazeera platform offered that “Democracy in Africa is not a Western imposition”, and that, “Today, the West is not imposing democracy on unwilling African nations. It is Africans themselves who long for true democracy on the continent.”

Like many other publications, both quote reports by Afrobarometer, the thoughtful Pan-African network that measures public attitudes on economic, political and social issues in Africa. Afrobarometer has done so much work, there is more than enough to support a thousand different storylines on democracy in Africa.

Al Jazeera quoted a January 2023 Afrobarometer report that said most Africans — including 77 percent of the people of Guinea, where a “popular” military coup took place in 2021 — prefer democracy, and 74 percent reject military governments.

Read: OBBO: Here’s how East Africans can pay for their future

The Economist cited an Afrobarometer survey that found that 66 percent of Africans prefer democracy to any other form of government a healthy majority. But there is a twist; that is a fall from the 75 percent who preferred democracy in 2012. Africans also have a lot of “buts” on democracy.


While 77 percent might prefer democracy, 53 percent said a coup would be legitimate if civilian leaders abuse their power. In other words, they welcome a “good coup”, and they have some notion of “bad democracy”.

The Economist noted that in “South Africa, which has one of the world’s most liberal constitutions, 72 percent say that if a non-elected leader could cut crime and boost housing and jobs, they would be willing to forgo elections.”

It is messy. It is all over the place. However, in the middle, in the preferences of the people, we are witnessing emerging forms of “democracy” in Africa.

For one, we are seeing a decoupling of elections from the old, classic concept of liberal democracy. In political markets, where there is no classic multiparty competition, in those where it is present in Zambia and Malawi, and in those where a dominant leader or ruling party ensures there is zero chance that an election will change anything, and in jurisdictions where everyone knows the vote will be stolen, we still see Africans turning up in record numbers to vote, lining up as early as am.

Read: OBBO: Nyerere, Mboya, Obote and Adde meet over 'chai' in 2065

The African voters seem to have done the impossible. They have separated the dancer from the dance. Be it in a freewheeling multiparty, one-party, or high-vote-theft political market, they put a high premium on voting itself as a process. They need to choose their dictator.

But perhaps the most important change came from, yes, West-imposed models.

From the mid-1980s, when Africa witnessed a dramatic policy hegemony of international financial institutions like the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, and the entrance of non-traditional from countries that hadn’t been colonisers on the continent like Denmark, Sweden, and Austria, their recipes produced some interesting dishes.

The African political and intellectual elite, returning to the continent after years of exile in the West, having fled the 1970s and 1980s one-party and military dictatorships, largely agreed on one thing — that the goods in the democracy basket needed to increase. That it was inadequate, if not meaningless, to construct engagement with African countries on the SINGLE CRITERION of whether they were a traditional multiparty or one-party regime.

The goods in the democracy basket were expanded to include women’s rights, children’s rights, good governance (no corruption, transparent budgeting), press freedom, a battery of social goods (education, health), and in recent years environmental issues have been thrown in and assumed great significance. The pure political rights that were embodied in the old model of multiparty became diluted extensively. It became just one of the many fishes in the pond.

The debate about Western democracy is moot in this context. One could argue that the West succeeded so much, the success is so big it can’t see it.

Three things happened. To a considerable degree, we have had a depoliticisation of politics. Secondly, electoral politics became less ideological and more transactional. And not transactional in the sense of buying votes with money, beer and cigarettes, but public goods — delivering on roads, water, schools, seeds, clean streets, garbage collection – and things like inclusion.

Read: ULIMWENGU: We either fix our problems or prepare to perish

These technical, “good society” things have become very important, it’s why 72 percent of South Africans would say that if a non-elected leader could cut crime and boost housing and jobs, they would be willing even to forgo elections. It is critical to watch this trend because it seems this is what the growing number of “less tribal” and urban Africans value.

Democracy in Africa is evolving. At this stage, the technical delivery-rich version seems to be rising as the winner of the democracy pageant. The promise of unfettered freedom to have candidates ranging from the village clown to the great visionary contesting the presidency without any limitations remains powerful, but the difference with those who prefer technical-delivery politics is mostly an intellectual and philosophical one.

It seems at least half of the African voters are very practical when they enter the voting booth. Doubtless, that will change over the next decade.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". X@cobbo3